Work and Rest
Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Exodus 20:8-11
In our church services this summer we are studying the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is difficult to study because its major themes are found in individual verses and short passages randomly scattered throughout the book. So each week I am collecting verses from Proverbs on some of its most prominent themes and printing them on an insert in the bulletin. This week’s topic, which gets a surprising amount of attention in Proverbs, is the danger of laziness. The insert includes only a fraction of the verses in Proverbs on this subject, but it will give us a place to start. Let’s pray. [Prayer]
My problem with preaching on laziness is thinking of anyone in our church to whom it applies. We do have a group in the church called Slackers, but they are hardly slackers. They get their name from taking up the slack, providing an incredible amount of volunteer labor for our church: like painting, plumbing, and wiring in the coffee fellowship room; like putting in additional exterior lights for added safety and security; like watering, pruning, weeding, edging, and raking to make our church grounds such a beautiful place. And this does not count things the Slackers do each month for people in their homes: fixing fences, windows, doors and roofs; moving furniture, even setting up hospital beds.
A few years ago our deacons did a survey of our congregation to find out all the ways that people in this church serve through various kinds of volunteer ministries. The list was amazing. We have people distributing food at foodbanks, taking meals to Hospitality House, driving people to appointments, serving on the boards of homeless shelters, providing books for people in jail or people with limited eyesight; people volunteering in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, meal sites, and animal rescue shelters; people walking, rocking, or bicycle riding for charities dealing with everything from poverty and disease to homelessness and injustice. We have people singing, tutoring, bookkeeping, quilting, cooking, baking, and visiting those who are alone. Proverbs 10:26 says, “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, are the lazy to their employers.” I don’t know anyone in our church who fits that description. Nor anyone like Proverbs 19:24: “The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and is too tired to bring it back to the mouth.” I don’t see anyone like that here in the church.
So what does the book of Proverbs have to say to us, people who are more likely to be overachievers than lazy bums?
I think there are two lessons that the Bible wants to teach us about work. Proverbs teaches the first one. Lesson #1: God uses work to make us participants in God’s blessing to the world. If you remember, in Genesis chapter 2, God plants a garden, called the Garden of Eden. God fills it with everything human beings need to thrive. Genesis 2:15 then says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” God created humans to be the caretakers of creation. God dignified our labor by making it an instrument of God’s blessing.
When Proverbs talks about work, it elaborates on this idea. Proverbs 24:30-31 says,
I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.
You may have heard the story about a gardener who was complimented by her neighbor about her beautiful garden. The neighbor said, “You and God have sure created a beautiful place here.” The gardener said, “Yeah, but you should have seen it when God had it alone.”
Proverbs 24 describes a vineyard when God is taking care of it alone. From this Proverbs draws a conclusion, verses 32-34:
Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.
God provides for us but intends to use us in the process.
But we also have a bigger mission. Look at the next two verses on the insert—Proverbs 21:25-26:
The craving of the lazy person is fatal, for lazy hands refuse to labor. All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.
God uses work not only to provide for us but also to provide for others. Part of the point of work is to have something to share with others. In Ephesians 4:28 the apostle Paul says, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” The goal of work is not to get rich but to have enough so as to be able to share with others who don’t have enough. God uses work to make us participants in God’s blessing to the world.
But the Bible also has a second lesson about work which we heard in our first scripture reading. Exodus 20:8-11 is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. It says,
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
And that bring me to the second lesson that Bible wants to teach us about work: Lesson #2: Sometimes we need to stop from our work long enough to remember who put us here and why.
Yes, work is important, but our lives are not defined only by our work. They are defined by our relationship to the God who created us. We were created in the image of God for a relationship with God, and sometimes we need to pause our hardworking, over-achieving lifestyle long enough to remember that relationship.
I doubt that any of you would expect to God to put food on your table without you doing some of the work for it. Even those of you who eat in the dining hall at Wesley still have to get yourselves down there, and unlike the character in Proverbs you still have to put the fork in the food and bring it to your mouth. None of us expects God to feed us without doing some work. But I wonder if we remember that the same is true for our spiritual health.
Awhile back I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat wondering if I had remembered to turn the sprinkler off in the back yard. A couple days earlier I had forgotten to turn off the sprinkler before I went to work, so it ran all day in the same spot, which was a terrible waste of water. So a couple nights later I suddenly woke up wondering if I had remembered to turn the sprinkler off that evening. I got up to check, and to my relief it was off.
Now I have a confession to make. I have never woken up in the middle of the night in a sweat because I forgot to pray about someone that day. It is not because I consider praying less important than turning off the sprinkler. It’s because I figure that God will take care of my prayers, even if I forget to pray them, but the sprinkler is up to me. I cannot expect God to take care of the sprinkler without my doing something about it.
Sometimes we forget, that a relationship to God takes work. And that’s why, according to the Ten Commandments, we need to set aside time to rest from our work so as to remember who put us here and why. This is especially true for hardworking overachievers like people at Southminster. Sometimes we need to push the pause button on our to-do lists to make time for our relationship with God. Because in the end that is the most important work we have.
Wednesday we had a memorial service at our church for Bea Simmons, a long time member and former secretary for our church. Bea kept a prayer list like most people keep a to-do list. Only unlike a to do list, she never took anyone off of it, which meant it kept growing until during the last years of her life it would take her two hours to pray for all the people on her list.
After she was put on Hospice care, I went to see Bea, and she seemed a little depressed. She wondered why God had not already taken her to heaven. She said that she felt like she no longer had a purpose for being here, that her life was no longer useful. I asked her if she still had her prayer list. She said yes. I asked if I was still on it. She said, “Of course.” Then I said to her, “Bea, I am counting on you to keep praying for me as long as you can. I need your prayers for as long as you can give them. And so do the other people on your list, even if they don’t know it.” She smiled and said, “Okay,” and that was the last time she told me she had no purpose.
Sometimes we achievement oriented people need to stop achieving and start praying. Sometimes those who work the hardest most need to stop and remember why we are here and whom we are serving. For when everything else we have worked so hard to achieve is forgotten, our relationship to God and our relationship to others is what will still count.